Memories of Mike Modano

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Modano4.jpgI’m not going to do an exact retrospective on Mike Modano’s great
career, since we’re not even certain he’s retiring. If and when he
announces his retirement this summer, then we’ll take a look at his
great numbers and career accomplishments. For now, I’m just going to
talk about Mike Modano and my memories of the best player in Stars
franchise history as he plays what is likely his final home game tonight
against the Anaheim Ducks.

I grew up a Dallas Stars fan, when my family and I worked as
volunteers at Reunion Arena in the early 1990’s. It was incredible for
me to be able to be so close to the players and the behind the scenes
workings of a hockey game, especially since many times we covered the
entrance where the players would enter before the games. Shane Churla,
Kevin Hatcher, Dave Gagner, Grant Ledyard, Todd Harvey — all players
that I was able to get to know off the ice. Mike Modano? Well, he was
this mystical figure that everyone was crazy about, and when he
acknowledged you with “hi”, a pat on the head or a hand shake it was
just an incredible feeling.

Of course, it’s the memories of Modano
on the ice that stand out to me. It’s tough to pinpoint very specific
moments without looking them up; instead, it’s a mashup of nearly 20
years of memories that leave me with just an overall feeling of greatness and the feeling of watching a legend play night in and night out.

Modano2.jpgThe
sight of Modano flying effortless across the ice from one end to the
other, that Stars jersey flapping in the wind, is the image that will
always be in my head when thinking of Modano. I don’t know if there’s
any other player in the NHL that was able to be so much faster than
those around him without looking like he was skating that much harder.

His
ability to bury a one timer from anywhere on the ice. It’s not exactly
at the level that Brett Hull reached in his career, but that was easily
Modano’s best asset. That smooth, easy and extremely powerful stroke
that was deadly accurate is a shot that he still uses to this day, and
every time he finds some way to score on a hard shot from a bad angle it
brings chills to my skin.

I’ll also never forget Modano’s
backhand shot, an art that seems to be lost these days and one that
Modano used to score with from incredible angles. I’ll never forget
seeing Modano score from near the blue line on an incredibly accurate
backhand shot, that painted the upper corner of the net. I don’t think
I’ve ever seen a shot quite like that.

His offense and his speed
will always be what Modano is known for, but it’s his selflessness and
his team-first attitude are what I’ll remember most. Mike Modano was
drafted by the Minnesota North Stars for his incredible offensive
ability, yet after the team moved to Dallas and hired Ken Hitchcock as
coach the franchise shifted philosophies. The Stars became a defensive
team, and asked Modano to take on a more defensive-minded approach. Not
only did he embrace the new role but he became perhaps the best wo-way
player in the NHL.

Later in his career, he was asked to become a
checking line center as his offensive skills and speed declined and
fully embraced that role as well. He had the option of leaving Dallas
for a more lucrative contract a few years back, but instead took a bit
of a discount to stay with the team he’s always played for. The
incredible line of Brett Hull, Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen will go
down as the best line the Stars have ever and likely ever will put on
the ice. Modano’s playmaking ability perfectly matched with Hull’s
scoring tough, and Lehtinen rounded it all off with some incredible
defensive prowess.

I’ll also never forget seeing Mike Modano slam
into the boards behind the net after Ruslan Sulei gave him a nice push
in the back. He slammed head first into the boards, a sight that
immediately looked as though Modano had broken his neck. It’s perhaps
the most gruesome play I had ever seen in hockey, and seeing Modano lie
motionless on the ice as he was strapped into a stretcher made everyone
immediately question what life would be like without him on the team.
There were tears in the eyes of every Stars fan that night.

It’s
tough to imagine the Dallas Stars taking the ice without Mike Modano on
the team. He’s been the face of the franchise for so long, and was the
perfect player for the team to have to be able to market the team in
Dallas. He helped make hockey into a incredibly popular sport in North
Texas and I’m still struggling to think of him not playing with a Stars
jersey on his back.

He may come back next season, but I doubt he
does it with any team other than the Dallas Stars. He’s passed up
numerous opportunities to be traded to much better teams contending for
the Stanley Cup, and he’s decided to stay in Dallas even through these
tough seasons of late. He is and forever will be a Dallas Star, and if
he does retire he will instantly be welcomed to be a member of the front
office. He may be part of an ownership group that purchases the
franchise but if not, he’ll be associated with the team in some
important capacity as soon as he retires.

Modano3.jpg

If this is indeed your
final home game in Dallas, Mike, then we bid you a warm and teary-eyed
adieu.

Pittsburgh’s run fueled by ‘Baby Pens’

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Thursday night was big for Pittsburgh.

But it was also big for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as well.

After the Penguins defeated Tampa Bay 2-1 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, head coach Mike Sullivan praised four key players that spent parts of this year with the club’s minor-league affiliate: Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl.

Lest we forget, Sullivan is a WBS guy too. He was coaching in the AHL prior to replacing Mike Johnston midway through the year, and seemed to know his minor league guys — the ‘Baby Pens’ — could produce at the NHL level.

“Those guys were huge,” Sullivan said in his presser. “I told our players after the game that one of the things I really loved about this game was it
took every single man in the lineup to win, and everybody made a significant contribution to helping us win, regardless of how many minutes they played.”

The most obvious hero was Rust, a rookie that scored both goals in the Game 7 win. The Notre Dame product had five goals in 55 career regular season games, but now has five goals in 17 playoff games this year.

“I love what he brings to this team and couldn’t be  happier  for him for his effort and his contribution as far as how he’s helped this team win for four or five months now,” Sullivan said of Rust. “To see him get rewarded with a couple of goals is a thrill for all of us because he’s such a great kid and he plays so hard.”

Murray, who turned 22 earlier this week, was also a key factor. He was remarkably solid after regaining the starter’s net from Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 6, stopping 44 of 47 shots over the final two games of the series.

Sheary, the diminutive speedster, had two points through Games 5-7 and fired an impressive five shots on goal tonight. Kuhnhackl was a little quieter, but still chipped in with five points this postseason, and provided a physical presence.

Overall, the quartet provided something that Pittsburgh’s lacked in previous playoffs. The knock was always that if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin weren’t producing, the Pens weren’t winning. They just didn’t have the depth at forward to compensate when their star players went quiet.

That’s not a problem anymore.

“Guys made key plays at key times, subtle plays — plays on the wall, blocked shots, won face-offs, decisions with the puck, a good save, a big hit,” Sullivan explained. “There was a lot of those subtle plays throughout the course of the game that, I think, makes us the team that we are.”

‘We love him’ — Bolts heap praise on Stamkos as uncertain future awaits

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 26:  Steven Stamkos #91 of the Tampa Bay Lightning looks on against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 26, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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This may have been Steve Stamkos‘ last game in a Tampa Bay uniform.

If it was, it didn’t go according to script.

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t special.

Stamkos stunned the hockey world on Thursday night by making his playoff debut in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, returning from a two-month absence due to a blood clotting issue.

After undergoing vascular surgery and spending weeks on blood thinners, the captain was cleared to return for his team’s most crucial game of the season — one the Bolts lost, 2-1, the narrowest of margins.

The outcome didn’t take away from how Tampa’s players and coaches felt about Stamkos’ return

“He’s an extremely important player on our team, and we weren’t quite sure when this was going to happen, but a decision was made that he could play for Game 7,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “It was an emotional boost for all of us. The guys were really excited to have him back, and I thought he did a great job.”

By the boxscore, Stamkos’ impact on the game was minimal. He received less than 12 minutes of ice time and finished minus-1. But he did have two shots on net — one of them showing just how dangerous, even in a limited capacity, No. 91 can be:

“I thought I beat him,” Stamkos told NHL.com. “It just went through him and out the other side.”

The focus for Stamkos and the Bolts now shifts to his contract situation. Slated to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, the former 60-goal scorer projects to be the biggest star to hit the market since Zach Parise and Ryan Suter became UFAs in 2012.

Those two, you may recall, cashed in quite nicely, signing identical 13-year, $98 million deals.

So you can see why Stamkos’ future is of great interest across the league.

Of course, nobody has officially ruled out the 26-year-old’s return to Tampa Bay, and tonight’s drama probably strengthened some pretty serious emotional ties. Remember, this is the only team he’s ever known. The Lightning made Stamkos the first overall pick in 2008 and, six years later, the 10th captain in franchise history. He won two Rocket Richard trophies with the Bolts, and played in a pair of Eastern Conference Finals and one Stanley Cup Final.

He’s the team’s leader and face of the franchise. That’s not small stuff.

But in the end, it might not matter. It’s important to remember the Lightning got to this point without Stamkos because they’ve got incredible depth and some really good young players. Those young players will need to be paid too, and there might not be enough money under the cap for GM Steve Yzerman to make Stamkos an offer he can’t refuse.

Which is why it was hard not to listen to comments the Bolts made tonight, and wonder if they’re aware of what the future probably holds.

“We hope we can stick together, but you just never know,” Boyle said, per the Tampa Bay Times. “Thought we were destined for some pretty special things.”

Here’s your Stanley Cup Final TV schedule

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 21: Patrick Marleau #12 of the San Jose Sharks skates on the ice against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on November 19, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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From the NHL:

The National Hockey League announced today the schedule for the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, which begins Monday, May 30, in Pittsburgh.

Based on their superior regular-season point total, the Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins will host Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final, as well as Games 5 and 7, if necessary.

The Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks will host Games 3 and 4, as well as Game 6, if necessary.

In the U.S., NBC will televise Game 1 and, if necessary, Games 5-7. NBCSN will broadcast Game 2. Television information for Games 3 and 4 will be announced at a later date.

Game 1 Monday, May 30 8 p.m. San Jose at Pittsburgh NBC
Game 2 Wednesday, June 1 8 p.m. San Jose at Pittsburgh NBCSN
Game 3 Saturday, June 4 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at San Jose TBD
Game 4 Monday, June 6 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at San Jose TBD
Game 5* Thursday, June 9 8 p.m. San Jose at Pittsburgh NBC
Game 6* Sunday, June 12 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at San Jose NBC
Game 7* Wednesday, June 15 8 p.m. San Jose at Pittsburgh NBC

Media day will be on Sunday, May 29, time TBD. PHT will be on location for the entirety of the final, and a reminder that all games will also be broadcast on NBC Sports Radio.

PHT’s Mike Halford (that’s me) and Jason Brough will be providing analysis for both pre- and post-game shows.

Pens edge Bolts, advance to first Stanley Cup Final in seven years

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For one night, anyway, the Steel City loved it some Rust.

In a thrilling and drama-filled affair, the unlikeliest of heroes — Pens rookie Bryan Rust — stole the show, scoring both goals in a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Rust’s heroics sent Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009.

Seven years ago against the Red Wings, it was depth forward Max Talbot that etched himself into Penguins lore, scoring both goals in the decisive Game 7.

Rust pretty much did the same on Thursday.

The former Notre Dame standout opened the scoring in the second period, then took all of 30 seconds to wipe out Jonathan Drouin‘s equalizer. It was a performance that’ll long be remembered in Pittsburgh, as it was the organization’s first Game 7 victory since — you guessed it — 2009, when Talbot led the Pens to victory over Detroit.

As mentioned above, this contest was filled with drama. The theatrics actually began prior to puck drop, when Bolts captain Steve Stamkos was added to the lineup — his first game since being diagnosed with a blood clotting issue on Mar. 31.

Stamkos’ playoff debut was somewhat muted. He finished minus-1 with just 11:55 of ice time, though it’s tough to suggest much more could’ve been expected from a guy that hadn’t played in two months.

At times tonight, it seemed nothing, not even Stamkos’ presence, was going to slow Pittsburgh down. The Pens out-shot the Lightning 39-17 and had it not been for some terrific netminding from Andrei Vasilevskiy, the score could’ve been much worse.

That said, Tampa Bay did have its chances in the third period, and finished with a frantic flurry around Pens goalie Matt Murray (who wasn’t busy, but finished with 16 saves).

In the end, the Lightning will undoubtedly regret the missed opportunity to finish this series off in Game 6 at home.

The Penguins, meanwhile, have to be thrilled with the form shown over the final two games of this series. They’re playing some terrific hockey, getting contributions across the board and now staring at a Stanley Cup Final matchup with San Jose — which promises to be a fast, offensive and compelling series.

Game 1 gets underway at Consol on Monday. Have to imagine Pittsburgh can’t wait.